By Dagmar Wolf
People do not accept schools unless those schools fit local needs. That is the underlying assumption of three studies that assess the situation in Senegal, Mali and Niger. They were recently published by the African Power and Politics Programme (APPP) at the London-based Overseas Development Institute. The authors argue that, in societies that are marked by religion, parents will only send children to school if curricula reflect traditional norms.
State schools in Francophone Africa do not necessarily do so since the sate-run education system was set up in the colonial era and conforms with the French idea of “laicité”, the separation of state and faith. Originally, the idea was to train a Francophone elite and to spread French culture. From its very start, this system clashed with religious and traditional sentiments.
The APPP reports hat various kinds of informal and faith-based schools have been opposing westernisation throughout the Sahel region for a long time. In the course of democratisation, reforms were started in the education sector since the early 1990s. Field research, according to the APPP, proves that most parents appreciate faith-based classes in state schools. However, they do not want schools to teach only Muslim values, they also want them to convey practical skills and serve pupils’ future employability. Many parents, the researchers found out, disapprove of entirely faith-based schools.
In the three countries considered, reform efforts have created hybrid schools that combine elements of secular education with faith-based curricula. While this reform principle is shared, implementation looks quite different.
Due to Mali’s great ethnic diversity, there never was a homogenous approach to Islamic education in this country, according to the APPP. As early as the 1990s, Madrasas (Koran schools) started modifying curricula, and the government provided them with incentives to conform with government policy without forsaking their religious mission. The APPP authors welcome this trend, but argue that there still is no convincing synthesis of both approaches.
Senegal’s Islamic schools are far more homogenous, the researchers argue. In 2002, the government introduced Koran classes in state schools and began to promote the establishment of Franco-Arab schools all over the nation. At the same time, private faith-based schools are being modernised according to government regulations. The APPP’s assessment is that this policy is likely to lead to sweeping social change, for instance, because it promotes closer cooperation with the Arab world.
Niger is the only country that has had hybrid schools for a long time, the APPP team writes, but their role was marginal compared with private Madrasas. The APPP paper is in favour of strengthening the Franco-Arab approach since it widens people’s horizons and is conducive to cooperation with Europe as well as the Arab world.
Generally speaking, the APPP considers reforms in all three countries promising because they respond to social demand and cultural traditions. There are challenges nonetheless. The scholars point out a lack of teachers, for instance, as well as curricula with too many items. The papers were written before Mali’s current crisis broke out, but it is obvious that strife does not improve schools.